Hallway Simulator 9000

Linearity in RPGs

In a discussion I was part of online, there was a comment about how Final Fantasy X was just a “hallway simulator”. In the game, you walk your characters along a very linear path, barely deviating at all, fighting monsters and bosses along the way, all before finally getting to the endgame. Sure, there might be some moments where you can wander off the beaten path and maybe find a couple of chests, or some cards, or something extended from the main plot, but those moments are rare. The players discussing the game noted that a good ninety percent of the title was “walk down hallway, fight, and then keep walking.”

This isn’t the only Final Fantasy game like this, either. Final Fantasy XIII was dinged for how linear it was as well, with reviewers and players alike also describing it as a “hallway simulator”. Players for that title even illustrated maps of the game, pointing out that when you actually looked at the explorable sections of the dungeons (and not just the pretty background filler) the halls were literally just straight lines for over ninety percent of the game. There was no deviation, no exploration, just walk forward until the last portion of the last act when the game finally opened up (forty hours later).

This is a fair criticism when you consider that most players expect a certain amount of open exploration in their RPGs. We want to be able to go off the beaten path, to find random loot and rare treasures off and away in secret nooks and crannies. When you jump into Final Fantasy VII, sure the first disc is fairly linear as you explore Midgar and get the party together. But once you escape to the overworld the game opens up a lot and lets you do things at your own pace, your own way. Open exploration, at a certain point, was the name of the game and the RPG was there to suit your desires, not the other way around.

However, I tend to think that these kinds of experiences are no longer the norm and, frankly, haven’t been for a while. Back in the days of the NES (and sometimes even before), nonlinear experiences were part of the genre. You could look at the Ultima series, or the Dragon Warrior / Dragon Quest games and find titles with a lot of open ended exploration. Sometimes you had a vague quest and you had to figure out where to go, what to do, and where all the dungeons were at. Exploration was the main gameplay feature, and the game felt nonlinear because you had to figure out everything about the game after getting dumped on the overworld. The game said, “it’s up to you,” and then left you to stumble on your own.

With that said, how many of these games truly were “open ended”? Dragon Warrior, for example, did dump you on the overworld, but you were forced (by expected levels, difficulty of the monsters, gear requirements, and the like) to follow a designated path to get through the game. Veer too far off and, more often than not, you wouldn’t be able to access further areas or do things out of order. The game was designed to keep you “on rails” even if, in certain ways, you didn’t even realize it was happening.

Not all RPGs in the genre were like this. The Ultima games were famous for telling you “go do these X number of things, any way you can.” Dragon Warrior III opened up early and set you on a quest to find six orbs in any order you wanted. Final Fantasy had a linear first half and then a very open second half. These games could let you play your way, even if the difficulty and gear expectations might encourage you to follow the “expected” path. Whether you did or not was up to you, but there was still an expected path you could take.

The “expected” route became tighter and tighter over the years, though. SNES RPGs were far more controlled, with less in the way of freeform exploration than even their related, NES brethren. Call it a certain amount of “Metroidvania influence” on the genre, with items and quests gating progress until the heroes followed certain paths. There was very little deviation from the path throughout the SNES Final Fantasy games, with each really only opening up by the time your heroes needed to ready up for the endgame. Titles from Quintet were similar, with the likes of SoulBlazer, Terranigma, and Illusion of Gaia having fairly linear routes through the game. Hell, even titles like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past were fairly regimented in their paths, offering little in the way of deviation even as the game felt like it opened up before you.

When we talk about hallway simulators, one of my favorite games comes to mind: Chrono Trigger. This isn’t just my favorite game of all time, it often ranks on many “best of SNES” lists. It’s a fantastic RPG with a lovely mix of graphics, art, story, and characters, all fine tuned to perfection. It’s also a hallway simulator. There are very few instances where you can deviate from the expected path (one notable dungeon early in the Future section being the exception) and the game doesn’t truly open up for freeform exploration until the very last act. Despite this, no one complains about the game being a “hallway simulator”.

Hell, I doubt most people even realized how linear the game was because its nonlinear world is deceptively hidden. You have to follow a given path to get through the story, no exceptions, with step A leading to step B, C, D, and so on. But most of the time you could venture back to previous eras via the time gates at the End of Time, gathering supplies and hanging out at the Millenial fair any time you wanted. It wasn’t exactly “open”, but it felt free just because you were forced down an endless series of hallways. The hallways were there, you just didn’t see them.

When people complain about hallway simulators, I think it really comes down to two factors: the first is how much control the player has over where to go between dungeons. If one dungeon leads to another, and then another, without end, then it can feel like the whole game is “on rails”. Towns can help to break up the experience, letting players have a moment to just hang out, randomly wander around, and chill. Any time the game can open up, even with the illusion of being open, that helps to break up the hallway experience. It doesn’t have to be much, players just need something.

But also, a good story with good characters can make the experience more palatable. Players complain about a number of things from Final Fantasy XIII for example, not just the dungeons but also the players and the story. It’s pretty clear that most players didn’t really enjoy that thirteenth entry all that much (and its two direct sequels are talked about even less). Had the characters and the story been better, a tale for players to latch onto the way they did for Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII, then you bet the “hallway simulator” experience wouldn’t be discussed with anything like the anger players have for it now.

In fact, how often do you hear about people complimenting the story in Final Fantasy games at this point? Square used to be the masters of making great stories with lovable characters. That all fell away around the time of Final Fantasy XI, the online game that became a turning point for the company. That game, and the fourteenth entry as well, are online titles with more dedicated to quests and raids than developing unique characters. You can’t make the hero of the game someone interesting with a detailed story when the hero could be anyone, from any of a number of races, created as an avatar for the player. And once that becomes your metric for how RPGs work, well that comes to define all of your storytelling going forward.

RPGs are great, and can tell grand stories. They can be linear and still feel “open”, but the trick is really that the companies have to invest in stories and characters players care about. It can be the most linear title around so long as players feel invested in what’s going on. If that level of care and love isn’t put in, it doesn’t matter how long the game is or how pretty the graphics are, it’s going to end up feeling like a hallway simulator, through and through.